Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Trying to find food in Tartu after dark—nay, it’s dark at three right now. Trying to find food in Tartu after eleven at night can be a somewhat trying experience. Should you just walk the extra distance from the downtown bars to go to McDonald’s, Statoil, Rehepapp or Alvi Kebob in that little late-night grease-cluster? Or should you risk soaking up alcohol with items produced—nay, heated up—by an insomniac chef? Nay, not a chef, but a college student delirious from mind-numbing reading for college courses in front of a bar microwave who probably hasn’t had her tuberculosis X-ray taken this year. If you’re brave, reckless, hungry or just plain drunk, every bar in downtown Tartu will serve fried or boiled Russian ravioli (pelmeenid), fried garlic bread (really good, but gets tiring fast), or a bowl of beans with chunks of bacon. You’re probably better off eating where you are, not venturing out in the semi-cold on a fool’s errand.

And where was I this past weekend? A place called Illegaard on Ülikooli Street. It’s old. It’s in a basement. It’s been saved by the bell. It’s a sports bar. Kind of. The English owner (yeah, he’s an authentic English bloke) has taken the tattered remains of what once possessed Tartu’s dingiest jaan and turned it into the barriest bar in a university town which otherwise should be resplendent with barriness. I mean, apart from a few bars, which I’ll mention in just a second, there’s no place to go out really, unless you want to pretend you’re in some old woman’s late-life crisis-decorated living room with shiny wallpaper and doyleys under all the cups and mugs and glasses.

Or perhaps you want to feel like a big-shot and pay big-shot prices for big-shot drinks, like the Mojito, while sitting around a table on sofas so comfortable that you absolutely cannot have any sort of conversation with any of your party (mainly because you really like the Phil Collins song they keep playing—unless anyone else can think of why no one would talk). Or maybe the lights are too bright or too dim everywhere else.

There is Krooks, but the lines are horrible, the clientele all wear bomber jackets and it’s ridiculously hard to move around if all the tables are occupied. Zavood is definitely considered a cool place, but I just feel a bit old to go there. It makes Krooks seem spacious on a big night, it’s so crowded. Genialistide Klubi is like a high-school dance in a haunted house that plays really good music. And they don’t offer food anyhow. Or alcohol, I think. Wait, I did get a rum and cola in a Dixie cup once. So if you want to drink late, you want a more international crowd (with hair) and space to move around, go to Illegaard. It’s the kind of place your embassy warned you about (meaning, farners congregate there).

Now why would I write about a bar? This little site’s for restaurants. Technically, they do serve food. But this is a fun place to go after eating at a real restaurant. It’s part of the experience of eating out in Tartu. It qualifies for a review, I think. It’s also a good measure of the food you just ate. If it wasn’t good or there wasn’t a lot, you drink more (or less) when you hit the bars.

Illegaard and I go back a long way. Originally, before the days of Mingus in Tartu, it was essentially the first bar in Tartu. You had to have a membership card to get in. It was exclusive. It was elite. It was easy to sneak into, I heard. It was split into two rooms, the second room being opened only when the patrons in the first room began to feel like sardines. The first room had steel tables that could double for tanker anchors. The second room had furniture made of aluminum foil. The furniture’s all still the same today. Only the sofas have been replaced a bit or reupholstered. The barriness of this place stems from the sofas yet again needing reupholstering. Your interior doesn’t need to be spic ‘n’ span. Well, clean, yes, but not sterile.

A really rich guy married some woman. He died. She bought property. Including the Villa Margaretha on Tähe Street. A beautiful building, replete with doyleys, and absolutely no business. She still drives million-kroon cars to work. She also owned Illegaard, and gave it a facelift around the turn of the millennium. A dark, dank dungeon bar suddenly became what Zack, Screech and Slater probably would have considered their favorite hangout before going off to college. Don’t get me wrong, it was an improvement. It’s the jaan I want to talk about, before it was saved by the bell.

One tiny little stall, right by the front door. No ventilation, no drainage in the floor, and certainly not the first thing you want to smell when you enter. The bowl was there—one of those Soviet-era things with the poop shelf (so you could separate your waste?)—and it flushed, but there was a metal grate on the floor that was about five or six centimeters thick, along with an ever-present body of water. Sewage really. You could play Creation in it. It was disgusting. There were lines outside by the courtyard parking lot to relieve yourself because no one wanted to go inside.

So one night at a friend’s party (he lived upstairs, in the same building), I discovered an eel wrapped in plastic in his fridge. He said it was a gift, he didn’t know what to do with it, and I could have it. I thanked him, wrapped it around my waist, put my coat on and we all went downstairs to Illegaard. When no one was looking, I scampered off to the jaan, unwrapped the eel and laid it in the bowl. A few minutes later, a princessy type came floating down the stairs out of the stall, arms hanging down but hands up like airplane flaps, and shaking her head. An emo boy from her table went to investigate, immediately ran back out and announced to the whole bar, “It’s genius! It’s amazing! It’s a work of art! Only an art student could have done this!” Every single person stood up in one coordinated movement and flocked to the door to see this œuvre d’art. I can’t even draw a square. If only that guy had known it was one of them darned farners.

A few minutes later the bartender—Kristiina—was seen wrapping up the eel in newspaper, behind the bar. Now, you’d either throw it away, or you wouldn’t. Throwing it away would not require newspaper. She must have been taking it somewhere, and wanted to keep it clean. Mrs. Mingus, to this day, does not believe me. But the kind of person who would leave an expired eel in a public jaan is not the kind of person who would make up some harebrained story about a woman and her apparent dinner.

A year ago I ordered fried pelmeenid. An hour later I was served. They were burned. A couple weeks ago, a friend and I went for drinks and she got the munchies, ordering two plates of onion rings and a plate of salsa and tortilla chips (tor-TI-ya, people, tortija—not tor-TILL-a). The onion rings were good, all eight or so of them, as was the dip. We both got heartburn though. Maybe the third time ever in Europe that I’ve had heartburn. Thing is, you must keep in mind that this is bar food. It’s not restaurant food. It’s frozen and reheated. At least the selection is a little more Anglo-American than other places. This should be pretty popular with Anglo-American people, too. And yes, I try whenever possible to use the term Anglo-American. It makes me feel more upper class through association with, well, the upper class (okay, not really—I just use that term to take the piss out of people with Angles). But I would choose good tapas any day over Freedom fries.

Gone are the days of the Romanian chef from Ireland. When Wilde finally went bust, our Romanian needed a job. He found a temporary one in Illegaard. Now he’s back at the new Vilde (not Wilde, but Vilde), and fried fish and chips are back in Illegaard. Apparently the Romanian dude is so passionate about cooking that he’s willing to cook privately, if you cover the cost of the food and a small fee for him. I don’t want to advertise him for something I’m not sure about, but if a person loves his job so much, and the job produces food available to the public, I just have to try this.

Illegaard has one of the few Fußball tables in Tartu. Five kroons a game, buy your tokens at the bar. Don’t worry about losing them. The owner claims to go through hundreds a month, at the expense of the supplier. I guess the table is rented. I like playing against Estonians, because most of them aren’t that good. Yes, that was a challenge. I refuse to play against the French though. They have so many stupid rules it’s infuriating. You can’t score with the goalie, and if you do, you lose points? Putain de bordel de fessage, cems! I have a substantial collection of these tokens at home, because after a couple games, my opponents just quit, and go leave Christmas gifts on the jaan seats.

Illegaard has some nice graffiti in the stalls. Things seem to be going well for Denis. He is rule, after all.

The thing I don’t get about Illegaard is why more bars aren’t like this. Granted, not everyone likes the English bar style, but this is more of a cross between English and Estonian. English energy, I mean the kind you can only find in a pub. You don’t hear chavs oi-ing or the now-internationally-famous football hooligans making up lyrics as they mumble out toneless stadium tunes, but there’s an energy here. Not so much limited to the studentele, because the clientele is mixed with townies.

But seriously, take a good look at a lot of the other bars here in Tartu. They’re nice enough, but they’re all just kind of snooty. You need a scarf to enter, and if you order anything other than tea and brandy you’ll be sitting alone. And who’s making the money? Who’s successful? I don’t want to state that all bars in Tartu should serve only frozen and fried food, but a little modern rock couldn’t hurt. Other bars (and people, too!) could take themselves a little less seriously, and I think that really couldn’t hurt either.

And just to take the piss out of the owner, the Angled guy, I heard he’s offering a free round of drinks to anyone who can correctly identify all the languages posted on the front door. And a bowl of nachos on the house to the first person who can translate them. And what the hell does Illegaard mean, anyhow?


Father Mingus is visiting for the holidays. His flight was cancelled for some reason, causing him to spend the night in the airport. When he boarded, the Dutch decided that the carry-on he had—his only bag—was too big, even though he’d already flown across the ocean with it in the overhead compartment. They forced him to check it, and subsequently lost it. Anyhow, according to him, it’s becoming more difficult to wish people a Merry Christmas in America. You might offend someone, if they’re not Christian or pagan. His suggestion? If someone makes an issue of it, say that wishing them a Merry Christmas is the best you can offer. It’s the sentiment that counts. The wish for wellness to other people. So when I say what I’m about to say, don’t get offended, just understand I want you to be happy. Merry Christmas! (Happy Christmas to people with Angles!)


Márton Barki said...

I read your "posts" not as reviews, rather like chapters of a live Tartu "roman".
And the ballance of the chosen restaurant and your present or past experiences/thoughts/jokes are like a plate of dish: main with garnish. Excellent.
Actually I have the same prob w/paeLLa but I gave up cuz telling the truth gulash is "gulyás" pronounced with Estonian J... so gujash, sg like that. I loved when Nico cooked there, I've tried his food almost every Friday. He is just the best right now in Tartu. He needs an own place with own face. I hope that someone will help him to beleive and act.

Marika Kristi said...

Illegaard is absolutely the best bar in Tartu. It's just so comfortable... whenever we visit Tartu now, we end up there every single night, which is OK because we end up seeing everybody we know there too.